On the Trail

Into the Oaxacan Mountains

David Driscoll

If you've ever shopped for a bottle of mezcal you may have found the entire procedure quite complicated. Some are bottles labeled with the type of agave distilled (espadin or maybe tobalá), some are labeled by the age or maturation of the spirit, and others may list a certain style of production like pechuga—meaning the spirit was distilled or macerated with a turkey breast. What you'll also find in the mezcal market are bottles labeled by their village of origin. San Luis del Rio is a popular locale used by brands like Del Maguey, Alipus, and El Jolgorio who pay distillers from these remote destinations for batches of their coveted liquids. I got the opportunity to travel to one of these secluded villages this past year—the village of Santa Ana del Rio, located along the same river as San Luis. Located more than three hours away from Oaxaca City, getting there requires some serious four-wheel drive.

In the pueblo of Santa Ana I was introduced to Meleton Contreras and the rest of his family: his son Lucio, along with cousin Eduardo Hernandez, his sister Minerva, and her husband Enrique (and their kid, little Luis!). Their mezcal is purchased by the Danzantes group and imported to the U.S. by Craft Distillers under the Alipus label. We've been selling their spirits for years in the store, but to actually visit the home of these humble people put the spirit into an entirely new light. The operation is truly a family affair. I asked Lucio what made the agave near Santa Ana so special, and he said the sugar levels. There's always an extreme ripeness to the piñas, he said, which makes fermentation a breeze.

After a good hour of bumping and grinding you finally come to the river, or the rio in the name Santa Ana del Rio. It flows somewhat red like the earth underneath it and splits the village from the distillery itself. You have to actually drive (or walk) across the river to reach the mezcal-producing area. And suddenly you can smell the roasted agave in the air. You pull into the stony driveway and there in front of you is the agave pit and the huge tahona used to mash the piñas into a mass of fermentable pulp. You just need to give each agave a few whacks with a machete first. Then you're in business.

Meleton distills his mezcal using a small alembic pot inside a brick mason after fermenting the agave pulp inside hand-built wooden vats. The fermentation can take anywhere between five and eight days depending on the temperature—the hotter it is, the fast the yeast works to transform the agave sugar into alcohol. Each batch is unique, as the espadín agave piñas take between six to eight years to fully ripen. That means every distillate is from a different set of agaves taken from a different part of the mountains. It's the equivalent of making multiple wine vintages every year, each time from a different set of vineyards! It also makes giving our customers a consistent and definitive flavor profile quite difficult. But that's ultimately what endears us to these products, right? They're true products of agriculture, hand-made in the truest sense of the term.

After a day of distillation and hard work it was back to the village for dinner: caldo de pollo. I think I had about three bowls before finally calling it quits. We still had a long drive ahead of us and I didn't want to think about bouncing around in the car with a stomach full of soup. It's a rough road in and out of the Oaxacan mountains, but it's worth the trip if you're a fan of mezcal. It's the most real experience that I think exists in the spirits world these days.

-David Driscoll